The man with the pipe
"A week is a long time in politics."
James Harold Wilson (1916-1995) was British Prime Minister from 1964 to 1970 and again from 1974 to 1976. He contested five elections, winning four of them.
Born in Huddersfield, Wilson won a scholarship to a local grammar school. However, due to a failure to get work, his father moved them to Spital, on the Wirral, and he then became the first head boy the school he attended for Sixth Form
, and then he went to Oxford. After a brief time as a Liberal, he became a Labour member and was one of the very large class of Labour MPs that arrived in the 1945 landslide, after being a civil servant during World War II
In 1947, he got the Cabinet-level job of President of the Board of Trade (now generally known as Business Secretary), but resigned from the Cabinet in 1951 in protest over Hugh Gaitskell's shadow budget. In 1960, he tried and failed to remove Gaitskell from the Labour leadership. When Gaitskell suddenly died three years later, Wilson became leader. As leader, Wilson crafted an image as a "man of the people" to contrast with the aristocratic background and peerage of his opponent
, Sir Alec Douglas-Homenote
, and emphasised his party's technocratic leanings over their nationalisation programme.
Under his leadership, Labour narrowly defeated Douglas-Home's Tories in 1964, winning a majority of 4. This quickly proved unworkable, so he called another election in 1966 and this time won a landslide victory. He lost the 1970 election in a surprise defeat. It is often said that Wilson lost because England had been knocked out of the World Cup just four days before the vote, though the announcement of an unusually bad balance of payments in the same month and anti-immigration sentiment may have had more to do with it. The hung parliament of February 1974 led to Labour winning most seats but not most votes, Wilson becoming PM and then took the country to the polls again in October. This time, Labour got a majority of 3. Once the majority disappeared, Labour had to rely on the Liberals to stay in power for the remainder of his term.
Wilson surprised everyone when he stood down in March 1976. He had Alzheimer's, which became apparent after he left.
Wilson's time in office, the longest for any Labour Prime Minister until Tony Blair
- The decision to devalue the pound in 1967, after three years of unsuccessfully attempting to prevent it. (Labour had previously had to devalue the pound in 1949, and Wilson was concerned that Labour would become "the party of devaluation".)
- The Vietnam War (Wilson supported the war, but did not provide troops).
- Decolonisation in general, and Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence in particular. (Wilson was praised for imposing sanctions and maintaining a tough stance on Rhodesia's unwillingness to transition to majority rule.)
- England's World Cup triumph in 1966.
- A failed EEC entry attempt in 1967 (vetoed by France).
- The abolition of the death penalty.
- Legalising homosexuality and abortion.
- The Representation of the People Act of 1969, which reduced the voting age from 21 to 18.
- The Race Relations Act of 1968 and the Equal Pay Act of 1970.
- The creation of the Department of Economic Affairs (until it was disbanded in 1969) and Ministry of Technology (merged into the Department of Trade and Industry in 1970).
- The establishment of the Open University in 1969.
- Increased spending on education, health and social services.
- A reduction in income inequality, combined with low unemployment and inflation (at least in his first term).
- A national referendum of membership of the EEC in 1975 (to resolve a split in Labour, where members were allowed to campaign on either side), which led to a vote to stay winning with 67.2%note .
- The Health and Safety Act in 1974.
Wilson was a very good tactician and the first PM to understand the power of television. His precise views on Polaris
varied on the audience (he ultimately went ahead with the order) and he was the first Prime Minister to be fully aware of the potentials of media. An attempt at a post-premiership talk show, though, failed- he just wasn't any good. He stayed an MP until 1983, then went to the Lords, but dropped out of public life after 1987.
In his last two years as PM, and until his death, he repeatedly told people he was being shadowed and bugged by MI5; claims dismissed as paranoia until revealed to be true in 2009. It is also rumoured he was a Soviet agent, or at least a 'useful idiot' of the kind Stalin liked. To be fair, one person spreading those rumours was L. Ron Hubbard
, after Wilson's government banned Scientologists from entering the UK in 1967 and Health Minister Kenneth Robinson won a libel suit against him.
- The Beatles' song "Taxman", from their Revolver album, mentions "Mr. Wilson" and "Mr. Heath" (Harold Wilson and then-opposition leader Edward Heath). A year before the song's release Wilson — savvy to the mood of the public regarding the band — had them awarded the M.B.E (Member of the British Empire).
- Wilson and Heath were made fun of occasionally in Monty Python's Flying Circus, usually as one-off throwaway gags.
- Wilson is depicted in the HBO film "Longford."
- He was the first Prime Minister to have a regular parody in Private Eye ("Mrs. Wilson's Diary", supposedly his day-to-day routine as told by his wife, frequently satirising Wilson's working class pretensions) and was commonly nicknamed "Wislon", after a typographical error that made him sound like an alien menace.
- Via trick photography, Wilson (then the PM) appears as one of the celebrities who embrace the craze for the Lancastrian martial art of 'Ecky-Thump' in The Goodies. He knocks out the policeman guarding Number Ten with a black pudding...without ever removing his pipe.
- He appeared on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show in 1978, partially because when writer Eddie Braben was a child in The Forties, Wilson had paid him to hand out campaign leaflets.
- A Glaswegian children`s song from The Sixties poked fun at both Wilson and Heath:
Vote, vote vote for Harold Wilson.
Who comes knockin at the door?
If it's Edward, let him in
with a pimple on his chin
and we'll not need Harold anymore,
Shut the door!